10 years ago, an unknown reigned at camp

Jake Fox owned Grapefruit League in 2011

March 15th, 2021

"I knew I had to come into Spring Training and make an impression right away," told me over a recent Zoom call from his home in Michigan. "A player like me, how do I say this politely? I'm not very appealing. I can't run well, I don't field a position well. ... I don't have a position."

Yet, somehow, in March 2011. For one month. For one Spring Training. Jacob Quirin Fox was on top of the baseball world.

In 27 games, he hit .297/.325/.797 with 10 homers and seven doubles. That averages out to 60 dingers over a 162-game season. He was hitting bombs off Max Scherzer. The Baltimore Sun was giving him the NBA Jam treatment.

And then, it all ended.

The 28-year-old played 27 games in the Majors for the Orioles in 2011, was designated for assignment in June, and never played in the big leagues again.

But what did that short spurt of fame feel like? To go from mostly unknown Minor Leaguer to the talk of an entire sport?

Here's his story.

Before the spring of 2011, Fox had played just 166 games in the Majors -- hitting 18 homers and posting a .236 batting average for the Cubs, A's and Orioles. He did have one short spurt of greatness for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in 2009, hitting .409/.495/.841 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in 45 games.

But, at this point, Fox was done with Minor League Baseball. He was 28, he was in his prime and he was ready to stick with a team on the big stage.

"I felt at that time in my career, I was kind of at the top of my game hitting-wise," Fox remembered.

There were a couple things going against Fox, which might've also helped to motivate him to hit like Babe Ruth for a month.

First, there was a managerial change for the O's in 2011: Buck Showalter had taken over for Dave Trembley, with whom Fox had forged a strong relationship during his stint with Baltimore in 2010. Fox needed to start all over again and show Showalter why he should remain on the team.

"I felt like I kinda had my back against the wall," Fox said. "I knew I had to do everything I could to earn a job."

The fact that Fox didn't really have a true position was a big turn-off for Showalter. They didn't really need a catcher; they had super prospect Matt Wieters ready to go. Nor did they need a DH; that title belonged to veteran Vladimir Guerrero. But because he didn't have a main position, Fox could kind of float around and try to play a bunch of different ones -- especially during Spring Training. That helped him get into lots of games and get lots of at-bats.

"[Buck] just kinda brought me along and plugged me in wherever he could," Fox told me. "There were no days off for me. All my teammates called me 'Mad Max: The Road Warrior.' I only didn't play in two games."

And he was on absolute fire at the plate. He hit a bomb off a young Scherzer:

"I think he started me off with a first-pitch slider, and I got it pretty good out to left-center in Sarasota."

He had visiting announcers calling for stadiums to be named after him.

"I was probably a very good Spring Training hitter because pitchers were just trying to locate their fastballs early in camp and I feasted on that," Fox said. "That was my strength. But yes, I was locked in and, yes, the ball did look like a beach ball. If they threw a pitch over the plate, I was gonna hammer it."

He hit homers off future Cy Young Award winners like Scherzer and David Price, and game-winners or game-tying blasts, but he says his most memorable shot was off former Tigers closer Jose Valverde.

"One of my favorites was off of Valverde," Fox laughed. "He chain-sawed me and he did his spin after strike two. He thought it was strike three. I looked back at the umpire saying like, 'That was only strike two, right?' I was questioning myself, I wasn't really sure. And I ended up hitting it out off him on the third one."

Showalter raved about his offense, reporters believed he should be on the roster.

"It was an eye-opening experience for me," Fox told me. "I was a good story for [reporters]. They'd always come to my locker and want to talk about it."

"It was the only time in my career where I felt like it was all or nothing," Fox said. "There was no choice. I had to make that team or who knows where my career was gonna go after that."

But even after taking the Grapefruit League by storm by playing out of his mind, Fox had still not gotten word that he'd made the team toward the end of March. He was still out there every day, trying his hardest. That attitude, somehow, got him into trouble with baseball's dreaded "unwritten rules." (Yes, they somehow even exist during Spring Training.)

The Orioles were taking on the Tigers during one of the last games of the spring. The O's were up 13-3 and Fox was at the plate with no outs and runners on second and third in the eighth inning.

"I've got a 3-0 count and I look down to the third-base coach: nothing. He's looking off somewhere," Fox said. "I look to the dugout and Buck is sitting there talking to Matt Wieters on the top step. So I'm looking around like, 'OK, green light, here we go.' I hadn't made the team yet, if 10 doesn't do it, then maybe 11 ..."

Fox took a hack on a ball right down the middle and fouled it back. He just missed it. He was upset with himself, but had something else to worry about.

"Jim Leyland's on the top step yelling at me," Fox said. "Dropping F-bombs at me, saying, 'What are you doing?'"

Fox took the next pitch for ball four and then was immediately subbed out for a pinch-runner. Showalter then lit into his player, asking him why he would swing on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout game. This all might sound pretty familiar. Showalter called Fox into his office the next day and said he had to "talk Leyland off a ledge," that the Tigers manager wanted to "have his hide."

Fox, of course, had a very reasonable explanation for his manager on why he swung (apart from that, you know, this is Spring Training, when scores don't matter).

"I'm trying to make a team, my family depends on me making the team," Fox said he told Buck. "And I didn't get a sign either way. If you had told me to take, I would've taken, no problem. But like, if 10 home runs didn't help me make the team, maybe 11 would've done it. I don't know. But I can't let off the gas right now, I gotta keep pushing."

Showalter understood where he was coming from and, right after that, told Fox he had in fact made the team as the backup catcher.

Once the regular season hit, Fox didn't get much playing time. He appeared in 27 games, hit two homers and slashed at a .246/.313/.443 line.

"Do I wish it would've gone a little different? Yes, I do," Fox said. "I wish I would've gotten more of an opportunity going into that season, but I also understand that the organization had their plan, and I feel like for me, I never fit into anyone's plan. It's like they didn't want to keep me but they couldn't help but keep me either. They had to keep me around because of the way I played, but they didn't have any room for me."

Fox never reached the Majors again after that. He bounced around the Minor Leagues, played a year in Korea, went to independent ball and finished up his playing career in 2017 in Mexico. He's now a hitting coach for the High-A Eugene Emeralds. Ten years later, he still looks fondly back on that spring when he was the talk of baseball.

"That was a chaotic, crazy spring for me," Fox said. "It was a circus. I'm trying to make a team, we're trying to raise a newborn, we're trying to make it all work. It's funny, I remember watching SportsCenter a couple nights where they brought my name up and I'm like, 'I'm not gonna be the next Jose Bautista. I'm just trying to make a team here.'"

And that's exactly what he did, and nobody can ever take it away from him.